By Mpume Ncube-Daka, Founder and CEO, Change Conversations
Over the past few years, the concept of unconscious bias has been brought into discussions in professional environments as well as social settings.
I love that the issue is increasingly being openly raised and sparking conversations with colleagues and friends, but it’s not enough to recognise instances of bias; we also need to know how to deal with it.
People subconsciously tap into stereotypes about other groups of people – whether that be based on sex, race, culture, age or the many other categories. I have been on the receiving end of unconscious bias as a senior African career strategist who happens to be female.
At one point I was the youngest leader in one of my roles, which elicited bias from colleagues who didn’t think I was up to the job. The culture of respecting one’s elders can be tricky at work. Ironically, I have also been the oldest colleague in the room, which elicited different biases, but biases, nonetheless. I have been overlooked for promotions and told, “You have the potential for growth, but…”
Some biases are obvious, but many are subtle. Have you ever heard a comment that millennials are flaky or arrogant? Do you carry that into a potential interview with someone in that age group? If you are interviewing an older white male for a position, do you subconsciously impose a racist stereotype on him?
A good start is to acknowledge that unconscious bias is very real. Ensure that you know what it looks like.
- Help staff to identify bias more easily by conducting training. Bias can be nuanced and often takes the form of micro-aggressions or seemingly small acts that compound a stereotype. Once you are aware of how it manifests, you’ll have the power to reflect and change.
- Encourage diversity of thought as a valued aspect of the company culture.
- If you are on the receiving end of bias or see it happening, call it out!
- Look critically at company policies and change policies you identify as creating or perpetuating bias.
As an individual, it is important to be mindful of your own energy and thoughts in the face of unconscious bias.
- Focus on the facts. It’s lazy to fall back on a stereotype and this allows room for subjectivity. But when you deal with the facts about the person, job, or discussion there is no room for bias.
- This is especially important in hiring and performance review situations. Managers can ensure that criteria for success are tangible and objective, leaving very little room for stereotyping.
- Assess the situation and micro-aggressor for intention and frequency.
- Call it out. Speak up. This takes courage and can be tricky in organisations with cultures that discourage openness, but it needn’t be confrontational. In a meeting where a manager continuously interrupts his female colleague, you could foster different points of view by saying, “I’d like to hear the rest of Mpume’s thoughts” or “Mpume raised an important point, I’d like to consider it in more detail before we move on.”
- Sometimes a side conversation after the moment is more valuable than speaking up immediately. I had the experience of a respected colleague reverting to a racial stereotype when he thought he was paying a compliment. A side conversation changed his understanding completely.
- If you choose not to explain how a comment or question reflects bias, be direct and respectfully point out that the comment or question can be viewed as stereotyping.
- You could choose to answer an offensive question but challenge it to create awareness and use it as an opportunity to educate your colleagues on how the question or comment could be viewed as stereotyping. Help them to understand differences and minimise chances of offending others.
Consider the scenario where a career-changing position becomes available. Two current employees have the objective requirements, but since one is a new mom, management thinks she will feel pressured. No. She is an adult. Offer her the choice. And then respect her choice.
As awareness grows about how to identify conscious bias, it is crucial to have a plan for what to do if you encounter bias in the workplace.
I’m a big believer in conversations, especially conversations about change that can be tough. Keep talking and be open to diverse ways of thinking. After all, conversations flow in two directions.
Mpume Daka-Ncube is a career and change strategist, speaker and facilitator, board member and entrepreneur. Having held senior roles at JSE-listed companies and multinational companies, Mpume brings credible gravitas to discussions. She is passionate about working with women in Africa and has